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Just Be Glad You Don't Live in Kansas
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When we last visited the sorry state of Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback - a former short-lived GOP presidential candidate - was showing us what happens when a right-wing ideologue tries to impose his utopian fantasies on the real world. Predictably, the result has been disastrous.
When Brownback took over in 2011, he indulged his inner tea party and promised Kansans “a real-live experiment” in pure conservative governance. In thrall to the crackpot supply-side theory that lost its luster in the Reagan era, Brownback ginned up massive tax cuts for the upper income brackets, and vowed that the cuts would give the Kansas economy “a shot of adrenaline,” create lots of jobs, and ultimately balance the budget.
None of those things have happened.
Kansas had a budget surplus when Brownback became governor. Today, its budget crisis is so dire, ($400 million in red ink) and crucial state services are so imperiled (because of his revenue drain), that the legislature has spent the last 111 days trying to figure out what to do (the longest session in Kansas history). Kansas job growth ranks 45th in the nation, the state has suffered three credit rating downgrades, and, all in all, Brownback’s mission to make Kansas a red-state model for the nation has become, in the words of the Kansas City Star, a “nationally embarrassing mess.”
With apologies to The Wizard of Oz, Brownback is a mashup of the Scarecrow and the Tin Man - no brains and no heart. The impact of his revenue drain has fallen most heavily on school kids and the state’s neediest citizens. For instance, education spending has already been slashed, and if threatened cuts to the state Medicaid program actually happen, those would be matched by federal cuts (because federal funds are allocated on the basis of the state’s commitment).
Without getting into the policy weeds, suffice it to say that Brownback’s solution to the mess he created is a recovery plan that protects the affluent and burdens everyone else. The main feature is a big hike in the state sales tax; as anyone with a brain knows, sales taxes are regressive, because richer folks spend much less of their income on everyday goods (like food) than poorer folks do.
But what about Brownback’s big tax cuts for the upper brackets? Nope, those are sacred. So how about asking the state’s business owners to share the burden and sacrifice a bit? Since they currently pay no taxes on their income, how about adding them to the income tax rolls? Wouldn’t that help to balance the budget - which, by law, has to be balanced? Nope, the business owners are sacred, too. Brownback says that if the business owners are touched, he’ll veto the whole recovery plan - and he’ll engineer social service cuts across the board.
What a clown car. And no tea-party paradise would be complete without this proviso:
While the affluent Kansans stay burden-free, the fiscally-reckless governor is requiring that the poorest Kansans practice fiscal discipline. In April, he and his legislative allies crafted a law that bars welfare recipients from spending relief money at swimming pools, the movies, the “jewelry store,” the “tattoo parlor,” or on “cruise ships.” (Although it’s OK to spend the relief money on a gun.) The law also slaps a $25 daily limit on ATM withdrawals using the welfare debit card - which is unfortunate, because now a recipient can’t use the card for important stuff, like, oh, paying the rent.
There’s a lot more. Brownback has been warring with the state Supreme Court, and has taken steps to curb some of its powers. It’s possible that his curbs are unconstitutional, and he knows that - because now he’s warning that if any lower court rules that his curbs are unconstitutional, he will de-fund the Kansas judiciary. You read that right. Whatever happened to the idea that the judiciary is an independent co-equal branch of government? It’s amazing how a right-wing ideologue can violate the American values that he professes to revere.
And in case you’re wondering why Kansas has become such an embarrassment, the answer takes only a paragraph. A state once known for its establishment Republican ethos - as demonstrated by (among others) Senate leader Bob Dole and Senator Nancy Kassebaum - has been conquered by the wing nuts. In a series of intramural battles over the past 20 years, moderate Republicans have been routed by the far right. Sam Brownback is the lamentable result.
No wonder Dorothy pined for a life over the rainbow.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia ( and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at